TIME Science

Should We Set Aside Half the Earth to Save It?

We should care about biodiversity if we care about ourselves

A much-anticipated book in conservation and natural science circles is EO Wilson’s Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, which is due early next year. It builds on his proposal to set aside half the Earth for the preservation of biodiversity.

The famous biologist and naturalist would do this by establishing huge biodiversity parks to protect, restore and connect habitats at a continental scale. Local people would be integrated into these parks as environmental educators, managers and rangers – a model drawn from existing large-scale conservation projects such as Area de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG) in northwestern Costa Rica.

The backdrop for this discussion is that we are in the sixth great extinction event in earth’s history. More species are being lost today than at any time since the end of the dinosaurs. There is no mystery as to why this is happening: it is a direct result of human depredations, habitat destruction, overpopulation, resource depletion, urban sprawl and climate change.

Wilson is one of the world’s premier natural scientists—an expert on ants, the father of island biogeography, apostle of the notion that humans share a bond with other species (biophilia) and a herald about the danger posed by extinction. On these and other matters he is also an eloquent writer, having written numerous books on biodiversity, science, and society. So when Wilson started to talk about half-Earth several years ago, people started to listen.

As a scholar of ethics and public policy with an interest in animals and the environment, I have been following the discussion of half-Earth for some time. I like the idea and think it is feasible. Yet it suffers from a major blind spot: a human-centric view on the value of life. Wilson’s entry into this debate, and his seeming evolution on matters of ethics, is an invitation to explore how people ought to live with each other, other animals and the natural world, particularly if vast tracts are set aside for wildlife.

The ethics of Wilson’s volte-face

I heard Wilson speak for the first time in Washington, DC, in the early 2000s. At that talk, Wilson was resigned to the inevitable loss of much of the world’s biodiversity. So he advocated a global biodiversity survey that would sample and store the world’s biotic heritage. In this way, we might still benefit from biodiversity’s genetic information in terms of biomedical research, and perhaps, someday, revive an extinct species or two.

Not a bad idea in and of itself. Still, it was a drearily fatalistic speech, and one entirely devoid of any sense of moral responsibility to the world of nonhuman animals and nature.

What is striking about Wilson’s argument for half-Earth is not the apparent about-face from cataloging biodiversity to restoring it. It is the moral dimension he attaches to it. In several interviews, he references the need for humanity to develop an ethic that cares about planetary life, and does not place the wants and needs of a single species (Homo sapiens sapiens) above the well-being of all other species.

To my ear, this sounds great, but I am not exactly sure how far it goes. In the past, Wilson’s discussions of conservation ethics appear to me clearly anthropocentric. They espouse the notion that we are exceptional creatures at the apex of evolution, the sole species that has intrinsic value in and of ourselves, and thus we are to be privileged above all other species.

In this view, we care about nature and biodiversity only because we care about ourselves. Nature is useful for us in the sense of resources and ecological services, but it has no value in and of itself. In ethics talk, people have intrinsic value while nature’s only value is what it can do for people—extrinsic value.

For example, in his 1993 book The Biophilia Hypothesis, Wilson argues for “the necessity of a robust and richly textured anthropocentric ethics apart from the issues of rights [for other animals or ecosystems] – one based on the hereditary needs of our own species. In addition to the well-documented utilitarian potential of wild species, the diversity of life has immense aesthetic and spiritual value.”

The passage indicates Wilson’s long-held view that biodiversity is important because of what it does for humanity, including the resources, beauty and spirituality people find in nature. It sidesteps questions of whether animals and the rest of nature have intrinsic value apart from human use.

His evolving position, as reflected in the half-Earth proposal, seems much more in tune with what ethicist call non-anthropocentrism – that humanity is simply one marvelous but no more special outcome of evolution; that other beings, species and/or ecosystems also have intrinsic value; and that there is no reason to automatically privilege us over the rest of life.

Consider this recent statement by Wilson:

What kind of a species are we that we treat the rest of life so cheaply? There are those who think that’s the destiny of Earth: we arrived, we’re humanizing the Earth, and it will be the destiny of Earth for us to wipe humans out and most of the rest of biodiversity. But I think the great majority of thoughtful people consider that a morally wrong position to take, and a very dangerous one.

The non-anthropocentric view does not deny that biodiversity and nature provide material, aesthetic and spiritual “resources.” Rather, it holds there is something more – that the community of life has value independent of the resources it provides humanity. Non-anthropocentric ethics requires, therefore, a more caring approach to people’s impact on the planet. Whether Wilson is really leaving anthropocentrism behind, time will tell. But for my part, I at least welcome his opening up possibilities to discuss less prejudicial views of animals and the rest of nature.

The 50% solution

It is interesting to note that half-Earth is not a new idea. In North America, the half-Earth concept first arose in the 1990s as a discussion about wilderness in the deep ecology movement. Various nonprofits that arose out of that movement continued to develop the idea, in particular the Wildlands Network, the Rewilding Institute and the Wild Foundation.

These organizations use a mix of conservation science, education and public policy initiatives to promote protecting and restoring continental-scale habitats and corridors, all with an eye to preserving the native flora and fauna of North America. One example is ongoing work to connect the Yellowstone to Yukon ecosystems along the spine of the Rocky Mountains.

When I was a graduate student, the term half-Earth had not yet been used, but the idea was in the air. My classmates and I referred to it as the “50% solution.” We chose this term because of the work of Reed Noss and Allen Cooperrider’s 1994 book, Savings Nature’s Legacy. Amongst other things, the book documents that, depending on the species and ecosystems in question, approximately 30% to 70% of the original habitats of the Earth would be necessary to sustain our planet’s biodiversity. So splitting the difference, we discussed the 50% solution to describe this need.

This leads directly into my third point. The engagement of Wilson and others with the idea of half-Earth and rewilding presupposes but does not fully articulate the need for an urban vision, one where cities are ecological, sustainable and resilient. Indeed, Wilson has yet to spell out what we do with the people and infrastructure that are not devoted to maintaining and teaching about his proposed biodiversity parks. This is not a criticism, but an urgent question for ongoing and creative thinking.

Humans are urbanizing like never before. Today, the majority of people live in cities, and by the end of the 21st century, over 90% of people will live in a metropolitan area. If we are to meet the compelling needs of human beings, we have to remake cities into sustainable and resilient “humanitats” that produce a good life.

Such a good life is not to be measured in simple gross domestic product or consumption, but rather in well-being – freedom, true equality, housing, health, education, recreation, meaningful work, community, sustainable energy, urban farming, green infrastructure, open space in the form of parks and refuges, contact with companion and wild animals, and a culture that values and respects the natural world.

To do all this in the context of saving half the Earth for its own sake is a tall order. Yet it is a challenge that we are up to if we have the will and ethical vision to value and coexist in a more-than-human world.

This article originally appeared on The ConversationThe Conversation

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME nature

All National Parks Are Free on Tuesday

US-HEALTH-NATURE-CHILDREN-TOURISM-DISEASE
Frederic J. Brown—AFP/Getty Images Tourists walking out to Glacier Point with a background view of Half Dome at Yosemite National Park on Aug. 5, 2015.

In celebration of the National Park Service's birthday

If going to a national park is on your summer bucket list, Tuesday is the day to do it.

Aug. 25 marks the National Park Service’s 99th birthday and to celebrate, entrance to all of America’s 408 National Parks is free.

While not all parks charge fees, the 127 that do include some of the more popular, such as Yosemite and Yellowstone.

Other free park entrance days include Martin Luther King, Jr. Day; Presidents Day; opening weekend of National Park Week in April; National Public Lands Day in September; and Veterans Day.

More information is available here.

TIME nature

See the Shocking Moment Lightning Hits a Plane

Don't watch this video if you are afraid of flying (or lightning)

A YouTube video uploaded by user “Jack Perkins” appears to show a lightning bolt striking a Delta plane as it sits on a runway. A description of the clip on the video-sharing network claims the footage was shot at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport: “While filming the line of planes all stacked up during a ground hold in Atlanta on 8/18/15 I happened to capture this direct lightning strike on a 737.”

Here’s another view via CBS News:

Atlanta’s NewsChannel 3 reports that the footage was captured by a man stuck on the runway while on a Minneapolis-bound flight and was sending his wife a video of the storm and the backed-up planes.

(h/t AJC.com)

TIME Accident

Young Campers Killed by Falling Branch at Yosemite National Park

The branch fell on the campers as they slept

(YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif.)—The usually happy height of the summer season at California’s bustling and beloved Yosemite National Park took a dark turn when a fallen tree branch killed two young campers and a campground closure was announced because of the presence of plague.

The large limb from a black oak fell on the tent of the two young campers as they slept in the heart of the park Friday, Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said.

The campers, described only as under 18, were both dead when rangers arrived at the crowded Upper Pines Campground in response to 911 calls, Gediman said.

What led to the limb falling, and its exact size, were not immediately revealed.

Large fallen limbs are a common occurrence at Yosemite, and they have occasionally led to deaths. The most recent was in 2012, when a park concession employee died when his tent cabin was hit. Two tourists were killed and nine were injured in 1985 when a 25-foot branch fell onto an open-air tram.

Meanwhile on Friday, park officials said they will temporarily close another popular campsite after two squirrels died of plague in the area.

Tuolumne Meadows Campground will close from noon Monday through noon Friday so authorities can treat the area with a flea-killing insecticide. Campers had their reservations canceled at the 304-site campground so the insecticide can be sprayed into rodent “burrow holes,” the California Department of Health said Friday.

Plague is carried by rodents and is spread by fleas, but transmission between people is rare.

“Although this is a rare disease, and the current risk to humans is low, eliminating the fleas is the best way to protect the public from the disease,” said Dr. Karen Smith, director of the state Health Department.

A child fell ill with the plague after camping with his family at Yosemite’s Crane Flat Campground in mid-July. The park reopened Crane Flat on Friday after treating that campground for four days with an insecticide.

The child has been recovering in a hospital. No other family members became sick.

Plague’s symptoms can include fever, chills, weakness, abdominal pain, and sometimes shortness of breath and swollen lymph nodes. It can be treated and cured when antibiotics are given soon after infection, but it’s deadly when treatment is delayed.

The last three cases of human plague in the state occurred in 2005 and 2006, the Health Department said. All three of those patients survived.

Since 1970, 42 people in California have contracted plague, resulting in nine deaths. Health officials find plague-infected animals every year, mostly in the state’s mountains and foothill regions.

TIME nature

Bison Attacks Woman Who Tried to Take a Selfie With It

Portrait of a Bison, Antelope Island State Park, Great Salt Lake, Utah, United States of America
Getty Images

She was the fifth person injured by a bison this year

A bison attacked a woman in Yellowstone National Park when she got too close trying to take a selfie with it.

When the 43-year-old woman from Mississippi and her daughter turned around to take the picture,”They heard the bison’s footsteps moving toward them and started to run, but the bison caught the mother on the right side, lifted her up and tossed her with its head,” the National Park Service said in a statement. The pair had been about 6 yards away from the animal when they stopped to take the photo.

The woman was taken to a clinic and treated for minor injuries Tuesday; she was released the same day. According to the Park Service’s statement, she was the fifth person injured by a bison encounter this summer.

TIME Environment

Scientists Warn ‘Sixth Extinction’ May Be Underway

extinction
Science Advances

The paper used conservative premises and still arrived what scientists said was a concerning conclusion

A new paper warns that a major extinction event, one that would be the sixth in our planet’s history, may be underway. The authors of the paper, published in Science Advances, sought to determine whether recent loss in biodiversity has been caused by human activity; the conclusion they reach is that “a sixth mass extinction is already under way.”

The scientists’ abstract concludes:

Averting a dramatic decay of biodiversity and the subsequent loss of ecosystem services is still possible through intensified conservation efforts, but that window of opportunity is rapidly closing.

As Kaleigh Rogers points out at Vice, this paper hardly breaks ground in its premise; the idea that Earth is undergoing the sixth extinction has been written about by scientists before. What differs, here, are the criteria; the scientists estimated very conservatively when it came to how many species have recently gone extinct, and still found that conservative estimate showing the likelihood of an environmental cataclysm.

TIME Natural Disasters

This Is What It’s Like to Get Caught in an Avalanche

A helmet cam video shows what it's like to get buried by snow

It’s every skier’s worst nightmare, but one that can indeed be survived.

Kristoffer Carlsson survived an avalanche while skiing in 2011, and brought back helmet-cam video of the snow burying him. Experts say that the best way to survive in Carlsson’s scary situation is to do exactly what he did: Use your hands to create a pocket of air as the snow falls.

TIME Environment

Louisiana Black Bear Is No Longer Endangered

In this May 17, 2015 photo, a Louisiana Black Bear, sub-species of the black bear that is protected under the Endangered Species Act, is seen in a water oak tree in Marksville, La.
Gerald Herbert—AP In this May 17, 2015 photo, a Louisiana Black Bear, sub-species of the black bear that is protected under the Endangered Species Act, is seen in a water oak tree in Marksville, La.

The bear is the original inspiration for the "Teddy Bear"

The Louisiana black bear is set to be removed from the endangered species list, the U.S. Department of Interior announced.

The bear, which was the original inspiration for the “Teddy Bear,” has been the focus of conservation efforts for more than 20 years. On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal announced that because of that conservation push, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed that the Louisiana black bear no longer be listed as endangered.

“Across Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, we have worked together with our partners to protect and restore habitat, reintroduce populations and reduce the threats to the bear,” Jewell said in a press release.

“Today’s recovery of the bear is yet another success story of the Endangered Species Act.”

TIME animals

Scientists Discover the First Fully Warm-Blooded Fish

The opah lives hundreds of feet deep below the surface

Scientists have discovered another apparent first, according to new research published in Science: a fully warm-blooded fish.

The opah, which researchers say dwells in the cold, dark depths of the ocean, is able to produce heat by constantly flapping its fins like wings as it moves about, keeping its blood warm as it circulates throughout its body. The opah’s warm-bloodedness is advantageous for the fish, as it’s able to keep itself at least 5 degrees Celsius warmer than its surrounding water and move about quickly to prey on other fish.

The researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association said the fish is the first known one to be identified as fully warm-blooded, a characteristic typical to mammals and birds; tuna and shark are only partially endothermic, meaning warm blood pumps to only select organs.

Researchers told the Washington Post on Thursday they were curious about the fish given its large size, big eyes, and agility in cold water.

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